'Atomic Mom' Filmmaker Reveals Secret Stories of the Bomb

At a symposium on the anti-nuclear weapons movement, director M.T. Silvia screens and discusses a new film about her mother's role at a Nevada testing site and the story of a Hiroshima survivor; and Steve Leeper, chairman of the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation, urges action by nonproliferation treaty signatories on disarmament.

In the next two or three years maybe, we will either make a very serious move toward disarmament ... or the emergence of lots of small nuclear weapon states.

To learn more about her biologist mother's involvement in research related to nuclear weapons, M.T. Silvia made a documentary.

"I had a strong desire to understand this part of her life, and I felt conflicted as an anti-war activist that my mom had worked with the bomb," Silvia told about 60 people attending a May 17 symposium at the Faculty Center that included a sneak-peak screening of her film "Atomic Mom."

Sponsored by the Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies at UCLA, the symposium on the anti-nuclear weapons movement also featured a lecture by Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation Chairman Steve Leeper. With the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference wrapping up this month at the United Nations, Leeper called on audience members to push for the elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide.

Having joined the U.S. Navy after World War II, Pauline Silvia participated in Operation Upshot-Knothole, a series of detonations conducted in Nevada in the 1950s. She put mice in lead containers on the test site and collected them after blasts to study the effects. In the film, this "atomic veteran" recalls taping her pants over her socks to cover her legs, but doing nothing to cover her head or face. She would return to base with radioactive sand in her hair.

As Pauline Silvia began to talk about her experiences and regrets, the family history project initiated by M.T. grew into something bigger. Her film research took her to the Nevada site and a reading room that held papers co-authored by her mother. After M.T.'s job sent her on a trip to Japan, "Atomic Mom" grew to encompass the story of a Hiroshima survivor who also had previously shared little of her experience. Yukie Tominaga, the daughter of Emiko Okada, found out about Okada's ordeal as an 8-year-old through interviews conducted for the film.

In the era of Pauline Silvia's studies, little was known about the effects of the bomb, and public service announcements advised Americans to duck beneath heavy furniture in the event of a nuclear blast. When Silvia conducted a series of thermal injury tests on dogs, she realized that the bomb's immediate effects were more severe. She would thereafter be shocked to see soldiers sent down to view detonations protected only by trenches they dug out of the radioactive ground. Later, soldiers struggled to receive treatment for illnesses that they attributed to radiation exposure. Silvia has refused to reveal her own medical problems on tape.

M.T. Silvia told the audience that an atomic veteran featured in the film – she interviewed him during his battle with skin cancer – died last summer of bladder cancer. In a call to the filmmaker before he died, he attributed both illnesses to his presence at nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, she said.

Sitting in the audience at the symposium was a survivor of the Hiroshima blast, Kikuko Otake, who said that her family had lived about a mile from ground zero.

"I was five years old and my mother was 33 years old when the bomb exploded," Otake said. "And like your mother, she never talked about her atomic bomb experience." Otake added that her mother broke the silence after nearly 50 years.

In his presentation at the symposium, Steve Leeper said that it is time for the major nuclear powers to begin living up to their obligations under the NPT, including the verifiable and irreversible elimination of all nuclear weapons. He believes that momentum is building, along with danger. Today's weapons are up to 1,000 times larger than Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and the detonation of 0.5 percent of the U.S. arsenal would create the climatic condition known as nuclear winter, he said.

"In the next two or three years maybe, we will either make a very serious move toward disarmament . . . or we will see the emergence of lots of small nuclear weapon states," Leeper said.

Published: Friday, May 21, 2010